(Originally published January 28, 2010)
I’ve been driving alone a lot this week. This afternoon, I began thinking about movies that have mattered to me, and I gave myself a quick exercise: Without any deliberation, name the first movie that comes to mind from each decade of my life. Here’s my list:
- Decade One (0 to 9 years old): Old Yeller (1957). I still remember how the tears flowed when that dog had to be shot. I’d heard of rabies, but I had no idea how ugly they could be.
- Decade Two (10 to 19): Help (1965). Looking back on it, this film was more labored than the Beatles first movie, A Hard Day’s Night. I remember it because I saw it with a good friend, John Northlake, and we saw it in one of the old, ornate movie palaces in downtown St. Louis, Loew’s State. The music lives on, but there will never be movie theaters like this again – a single screen and more than 3,400 seats.
- Decade Three (20 to 29): Straw Dogs (1971). Ok, it’s violent and it’s crude, and for haters of Sam Peckinpah, it’s all the ammunition they need to skewer him. I found it cathartic. Dustin Hoffman’s character, David Summer, is a milquetoast mathematician who gets pushed once too often by a taunting wife and a gang of bullies. He becomes a one-man war machine as he stands up for a mentally disabled man. By the time the fighting ends, he’s thrown boiling oil on some of the bad guys, killed one with a fire poker and taken out another with a bear trap around the neck! It’s powerful, primitive stuff.
- Decade Four (30 to 39): Return of the Jedi (1983). The good guys won, and the special effects were state of the art. But the reason I remember this movie is that it was an early lesson in fatherhood. My son, Paul, was 3 at the time and wanted to see the movie. OK by me, I thought, underestimating how it might scare the bejabbers out of him. We stayed until the end, but he ended up sitting in my lap, turning away when it got too intense for him. Needless to say, I gave more thought to movies we saw after that. On a good note, he turned out to be a wonderful, creative young man, so no permanent harm, I guess.
- Decade Five (40 to 49): American Beauty (1999). There’s no better film to capture the antsiness and anxiety of midlife. Too bad that Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, met such an untimely death. Once he worked all the craziness out of his system, there’s no telling what he might have achieved.
- Decade Six (50 to 59): O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). After Fargo, I was already a fan of the Coen brothers. This movie was so quirky, so funny, and looking back, it seems like such a perfect way to launch the new millennium, a really good laugh before the downward spiral of the decade.
These aren’t all great movies, and there are many that I personally hold in higher regard. But for whatever reason, these are the ones that came to mind first. That’s my list; what’s yours? Play along. We all know, of course, that the younger you are, the shorter your list will be.